The Bollywood import "Jal" ("water" in Hindi) may not be a perfect film, but it's the perfect tale for these drought-centric times. First-time director Girish Malik, who co-wrote with Rakesh Mishra, has crafted a starkly beautiful, at times dazzling, vision that reinforces water as our most valuable — and perhaps most vulnerable — commodity.
Set in the scorched deserts of western India's Rann of Kutch region, this often-dreamlike movie finds Bakka (Purab Kohli), an ebullient water diviner, striking out in his quest to unearth a water supply for his poor, desperately dry village.
Meanwhile, a Russian bird watcher (Saidah Jules) and several ecologists arrive in the Kutch to help save the area's thirsty migratory flamingos. They bring in government-issued machinery to dig for water, a strategy that will prove far more efficient than Bakka's manual efforts. That is, if these scientifically minded visitors could locate a living, breathing well. They turn to Bakka for help, and, copper dowsing rods in hand, he discovers water.
The birds are saved, Bakka becomes a hero, and his elevated status enables him to marry Kesar (Kirti Kulhari), an alluring beauty from the enemy village. But what of Bakka's own town, which remains bone-dry? Why won't the ecologists let him borrow their rig so he can drill for water? Are flamingos more important than people?
Despite its share of buoyant moments, the film takes on a somewhat operatic tone as it intriguingly explores such themes as greed, faith, jealousy, pride and, of course, climate change. The tragic third act is compelling and vividly realized.
If the narrative gets a bit jumpy (no thanks to the frequent use of fades), the movie's skillful cinematography, fine soundtrack and vital message help overshadow that flaw. And for the record, watching a camel sit never gets old.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes. In Hindi and English with subtitles.
Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles. Also on VOD.